Oct. 11, 2013 at 6:12 PM ET
When Samuel Etherington first hit the waves with a board and kite in hand, the waves hit back with a bruising vengeance. But in learning to harness their power for his kitesurfing adrenaline rush, he found inspiration to design a next-generation wave energy harvester. The contraption scored him a coveted finalist spot in an engineering design competition and could serve as a viable alternative source of energy to boot.
"The waves would just roll and smash over you and then you would tumble and try to get back up on the board and try again and try again," the mechanical design student at Brunel University near London told NBC News about his early days kitesurfing. "That then really physically hit home. There is a lot of power to be had here."
Unlike other contraptions that harvest the up and down motion of the waves to harvest energy, Etherington came up with a novel semi-submersible design that absorbs forces from all directions of the waves — up and down, side to side, and everything in between. His prototype, called Renewable Wave Power, was selected in September as one of 20 finalists for the James Dyson Award. The famous designer will pick a winner on Nov. 7.
Most wave energy harvesters, Etherington explained, are linear; that is they work in a single axis. His is a multi-axis harvester. "The more you can absorb the forces in all of the axes, the more you have to play with in terms of generating it into power," he said.
The harvester converts the movement of the waves into power to drive a piston to build up hydraulic pressure. This pressure, in turn, is released in order to spin a motor that is connected to a generator.
Etherington's prototype is scaled down to work in laboratory wave tank. He is currently seeking funds to build a larger prototype that he can test in the open sea via the European Marine Energy Center's Nursery Program. That, he said, will require somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000.
Although working out the engineering for the multi-axis design was a challenge, Etherington said his biggest obstacle is simply convincing everyone around him that it can be done. He was told time and again not to bother with wave energy, given that other alternatives such as wind and solar are less expensive and likely more efficient. But that route, he said, ignores the "raw power" of the waves.
"People may say it is not the most efficient thing you've ever seen, but if you just got on and done something about it and made one then you are still generating whilst everyone else is still whittling on about 'Oh it is not that efficient,'" he said. "The way I see it is people can say what they want, but unless you actually do something, nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to get better."
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.